Back around the turn of the millennium, Joni Mitchell found a renewed interest in her back catalogue. The growth of new alternative feminist singer-songwriters in the 90s, and the album re-releases boom brought on by the CD era, brought her music to a younger audience and rekindled an old love in aging generations.
After two decades of, for the most part, commercially and critically unsuccessful albums, Mitchell returned to a more favoured era – re-recording hits with orchestra, jazz-oriented vocals and an aged world-weariness, complemented by covers of standards. Vince Mendoza’s orchestral arrangements of these two albums, 2000’s Both Sides Now and 2002’s Travelogue, have never been performed in the UK until this evening in Cardiff at the Wales Millenium Centre’s Llais festival.
The BBC National Orchestra Of Wales plus singers Charlotte Church, Laura Mvula, Eska, Georgia Ruth and Olivia Chaney should make an ideal team to tackle these two monuments to the ageing “llais” (voice) of the counterculture. But, just as the drummer and orchestra are not always locked in groove – with the jazz pianist buried out of sight within the orchestral setup – the concert takes a long while to settle into itself. Singers come on and offstage without engaging the audience, song after song delivered with more focus on performing than on meaningful words.
It seems sacrilege, at a Joni Mitchell concert of all places, to comment on the appearance of these women who are absolutely killing it in their musical careers, but the audience’s enjoyment of the material is somewhat impacted by how comfortable our frontwomen are in this orchestral jazz-singer role. While Charlotte Church comes on in a black gown that wouldn’t look out of place on one of the BBC orchestra’s usual operatic soloists, Georgia Ruth – in something Joni might have worn at the end of the 1960s – stands directly in front of the conductor without much movement, singing a repertoire from the opposite end to those Laurel Canyon days of the Joni Mitchell canon. Perhaps this is how early Joni herself would have looked if she’d been dropped into one of her much later gigs and asked to sing a bunch of slow ballads in a far lower key than her pre-smoking-damaged voice would have handled.
Not that there are any difficulties vocally. All five of our singers are impeccable: doing their best within the constraints of the arrangements, each standing in different places along the line between faithful vocal reproduction of the early 00s recordings and freer re-interpretation. Laura Mvula uncannily captures late-era Joni Mitchell’s weary long breathy vibrato at the ends of words, while Eska fits most naturally into the style, delivering even awkward lyrics with absolute assuredness, and bringing out more layers within the songs than even Joni did. Her rendition of Both Sides Now is as convincing as if the songwriter herself were onstage, and reduces some audience members to tears.
Charlotte Church, on the other hand, takes the opportunity on Woodstock to switch into both rock goddess mode and semi-operatic semi-cathedral soprano. As well as being a Grammy award-winning arrangement, Mendoza’s Woodstock combined with Church’s timbral creativity makes for possibly the most thrilling version of this epoch-defining song that’s ever been heard.
There are too many moments, though, where the arrangements don’t do the songwriting any justice. Lines that could be passed off as conversational asides or points of quirky self-reflection within the 60s and 70s recordings are stretched out and taken far too seriously. It’s a problem with the source material, not the Llais performers, but there’s far too much of it for us to relax fully into the programme. The difference between Joni’s own songs and the standards is stark, and they stand out even more here than on the 2000 and 2002 albums: a Welsh artist singing “Oh, Canadaaa, ooohhh” is difficult to take seriously when each lyric is lingered on with such attempted earnestness.
Olivia Chaney’s talent shines in the last segment of the concert when the orchestra is removed and replaced with a smaller folk/chamber group. Her solo piano rendition of Blue is, seemingly, note-by-note identical to the original, while an energetic Carey, with backing vocals from our other singers, is a great concert closer. It’s a shame not to hear far more from this setup – and to miss the opportunity to have Georgia Ruth play a Joni Mitchell song at the harp is absolutely criminal.
Perhaps too much of the programming decision revolved around making the most of the orchestra, passionately conducted by Anthony Gabriele, when just one album or even sparser highlights from both would have done fine. Twenty years ago, Joni Mitchell’s interpretations (of jazz/Tin Pan Alley standards) and reinterpretations (of her older songs) did reveal another side to her musicality, but they’re not the first thing to come to mind as the building blocks of a “Joni Mitchell Celebration”. Credit, though, for a brave programme under the artistic direction of Kate St John, and a UK premiere that should have put Llais on the map.
Both Sides Now: Celebrating Joni Mitchell, Llais @ Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Fri 13 Oct
words ISABEL THOMAS photos POLLY THOMAS